What exactly was apartheid? It’s tempting to think of it as just like American segregation, except that those darn Afrikaners were bigger jerks who held out longer. But it runs much deeper than that. It’s closer to Palestine and Israel, or Northern Ireland. (This analysis is basically taken from Beyond the Miracle, which has been a great read on the complexities of the post-apartheid era of South African history.)
Imagine that the Native Americans were much more numerous, actually forming the majority of modern inhabitants of the US. And that, while the original English settlers and company didn’t look too kindly on them, these newcomers did not actually mandate segregation until the twentieth century. Nor did they start setting up tribal lands until then, for the purpose of letting the tribes keep some of their own government, even while stripping them of rights and control over that land (I guess some of this doesn’t need too much imagination).
By the twentieth century, keep in mind, the descendant of these settlers would have been around 300 years. They would no longer be Johnny-come-latelys, but could trace back their claim on the land for generations. Their identities would almost completely tied to the land. It would no be longer white colonists versus indigenous peoples; it is two groups of now-indigenous peoples, even if one is a bit more indigenous than the other. For example, what am I? I have some ancestors who somewhat recently off the boat from Sweden or Ireland. But I also have some who have been around for a while, to the point where it would seem more appropriate to call them “American” than “Dutch” or “British” or whatnot.
That’s South Africa. The Afrikaners have seen and do see themselves as South Africans, not as Dutch. They saw apartheid as a means of protecting what now was their homeland. After all, the settlers had one mode of government, the original natives another. Languages and customs differed. It might make sense to let the different cultures progress on their own, and that was a large part of the official rationale behind apartheid. The word itself simply means “apart-ness”; “-heid” means “-ness”, and is relating to the German “-heit” and the English “-hood” (like in “neighborhood” and “brotherhood”), while “apart” means, well, “apart”. So the Xhosa want chieftains? Fine, let them have traditional hierarchies. They can have their own “homeland” and do whatever they want with it. In return, the whites get their own areas as well.
Of course, I don’t mean to justify apartheid. If it really had been about letting cultures run their own courses, black groups would have received proportionate amounts of land, and whites would have had to give away their ancestral homes to blacks as much as vice versa. And that’s just to start enumerating problems.
But we have to get into the reasoning behind such legislation if we want to stop oppression in our own day. Yeah, apartheid seems to be obviously backwards and ignorant to us. But if we had been Afrikaners growing up in the twentieth century, would that be so obvious to us? Even Nelson Mandela talks about his shock at seeing black pilots when he visited other African countries; he, despite being an able, intelligent black person who opened up the first black law firm in Jo’burg, had a split second of doubt that a black person could fly a plane. How much more so would the spirit of the age work its way into, say, middle-class Afrikaners who never really dealt with blacks other than as servants?
But of course, if we are doing anything similarly ignorant, our views will appear just as obvious to us. People who are oppressed can’t ignore how society is bent and broken. But those of us who have privilege (such as, for example, a white middle-class American male who can take a romp through Africa for a couple years) have to search and analyze for how we might be falling into the same mistakes, how we might be making the same leaps in reasoning.